Wednesday, 19 February 2020

Visiting Catania by air

Catania's airport is small. It hosts some 5 million travellers per year, so you cannot easily get lost. If you want to go into the city center, the Alibus airport bus is your best bet. It leaves every 20 to 25 minutes from a stop right in front of the arrivals hall. You can buy a single ticket for 4 euro from the driver, which entitles you to 90 minutes of transport on the rest of Catania's bus network as well, but the odds are that you don't need to.

Unlike Google Maps suggests, the airport bus doesn't end at the Catania railway station (which is a good thing, Italian railway stations are to be avoided whenever possible). The bus only takes 10 to 15 minutes to reach the railway station and then sets out on a circular trajectory through the city center, in one direction only (counter clock-wise). You can find a very helpful map here, rest assured that the route basically covers all the main hotels and sights in the city.

Alibus Catania airport shuttle map, courtesy of AMT Alibus (I guess)

Take into account that circling through the city center takes more time, it easily costs some 20 minutes to make the full circle. Don't expect there to be clear indications of Alibus stops, let alone timetables, at the bus stops. There is also a local bus, number 457, which should cost only 1 euro and has a similar route, but I haven't used it so I cannot tell if it's a viable budget option. 4 euro won't break the bank either. By the way, shock absorption it not the strongest feature of Catania buses.

If you fly business class or have a Priority Pass, on leaving Catania you can visit the business lounge. It can be reached by stairs or elevator between gates 5 and 6 in the terminal. Don't expect more than 15 to 20 seats in total, but it is much quieter than below in the main terminal, and you can get essentials such as Coke Zero.

Short review of Mercure Excelsior in Catania


Mercure Catania Excelsior living room and view into bedroom

On a trip to Catania in Sicily, we booked a 5 night stay in the Mercure Excelsior, a 4 star property in the city center, within walking distance of the main sights. Mercure hotels vary widely in quality, with a just acceptable Mercure Bologna city center to a very good Mercure Krakow, but the focus is on budget-focused 4 star properties in central locations, usually either at the railway station or in the city center.
Mercure Excelsior Catania bathroom

We checked in at 9 PM and I asked if there would be an upgrade (being a Accor 'ALL' gold member) and this was indeed affirmed. Upgrade policies vary widely across hotels, but this time we we lucky, receiving a double upgrade to a suite. It consisted of a luggage room (a small 'walk-in closet'), a small hallway, a bathroom with separate bath and shower and two sinks, a living room and a bedroom. Both living and bedroom had their own balcony, however, without furniture.

All in all, the room was very nice given the hotel category, if slightly dated (but not as dated as the almost campy Mercure Bologna). At some 90 euros per night including breakfast, we had very little to complain about, even receiving a complimentary bottle of water and some snacks. The view, however, was probably the room's best feature. Although it looked primarily at a large parking and the justice palace, behind that was a clear view of the Etna.

The breakfast wasn't overwhelming, but generally good. However, removing tea and coffee at 10.15 when the breakfast is to last until 10.30 is an absolute no-go. And using thermos flasks for tea that once contained coffee is a no-go too - you'll always taste coffee in your tea. The hotel is a conference venue as well, and actively used as such, so expect the usual murmur of conference attendees in the evening at the hotel bar.

Etna view at sunset from the Hotel Palace Catania UNA Esperienze hotel
Would I go there again? Yes, if I were to stay in Catania again (which is a different story). However, given the absolutely gorgeous roof top bar at the Hotel Palace Catania UNA Esperienze, you might consider this hotel too (at a premium probably, but also featuring more temporary d├ęcor). Let the photo above speak for itself.

Wednesday, 12 February 2020

Spectacular first and business class fares Lufthansa/Swiss from Amsterdam

Gone are the days we had to position to Saint Petersburg to get a low first class fare from Lufthansa. This week, Lufthansa and Swiss announced a so-called partner sale to many destinations worldwide, for premium economy, business class and first class. The low fares only are available if you travel in pairs. Not all offers have been published, and some can only be booked via an online travel agency.

For instance, it's very hard or even impossible to find the first class fare of 1,890 euro return from Amsterdam to Bangkok on Lufthansa.com or Swiss.com, but it can be found via e.g. momondo.nl. The regular warnings for booking via an OTA apply: always pay with a credit card, even if there's a fee, and avoid all the upsell stuff such as choosing your seats and getting travel insurance. For premium cabins, choosing seats is mostly free of charge with the airline itself and travel insurance is always cheaper when bought directly from an insurance company.

Apart from all the other fares, notable ones are Bangkok in business class for 1,090 euro, Delhi for some 1,650 return (per person) in first class. There is not a single overview of all low fares, but you can find some overviews here, here, and here.

Wednesday, 5 February 2020

'Free' London trip

I said it before and I will say it again: loyalty programs' points often show higher inflation than the German Papiermark in the Weimar republic. I just lost a considerable part of the spending power of my Aegean miles, and while the pace of collecting Hilton Honor points has accelerated considering the number of stays there, it seems they quickly get worthless because of the new dynamic pricing system Hilton uses for its redemption rates.

However, there is a small but noticeable loophole in the system. There are still 'standard room rewards' that are priced at the original redemption categories. Enter the possibility of getting a room in an expensive hotel. I once stayed at the Trafalgar St. James at a ridiculously low rate of 99 GBP because the MGallery Victory House hotel offered all its rooms (including suites) at that rate and then appeared not to be open in time to honour the reservation.

My wife and I thus got rebooked to the St. James as 'vips', which got us a 50 square meter suite in the heart of London, one of the greatest travel hacks I ever used (thanks to the kind folks of Insideflyer.co.uk). Anyway, how to get back into this fantastic hotel? The cash rates in July are around 450 GBP, an amount I never paid for a hotel room. But the lowest points rate is 70,000. And my balance showed that number. No suite this time, unfortunately.

A single flight from London City Airport to Rotterdam would set me back 135 GBP, but I used 4,500 Avios per person plus 22,50 in fees per person to book that flight. Then I booked a cash fare from Amsterdam to London Heathrow for 53 euro on British Airways. If you ever fly to Heathrow, book your connecting train early. You can book a single to Paddington station for only 5,50 GBP if you're early enough. At a cash total of 160 euro for 2 persons, plus 9,000 Avios and 70,000 HH points this represents a 800 euro theoretical saving.

Whatever happened to LATAM 704/705 FRA/MAD?

A big blow for aviation geeks: Europe's most popular fifth freedom flight between Frankfurt and Madrid is dying. Rumour has it that the service will be replaced by direct flights between Frankfurt and Santiago de Chile. This means that the intra-European hop has been made redundant.

It used to be a great catch if you wanted to experience a real business class with lie-flat seats without breaking the bank. Last time, for May 2020, I managed to book a return just below 150 euro. But, given the news about the change of service, I checked my itinerary, only to find that my outbound flight between Frankfurt and Madrid had been cancelled.

So in addition to disappearing altogether, all weekend flights (at least the Saturday flight, I'm not sure if there was a service on Sunday) have been cancelled. If you've made your booking through an online travel agency, you probably haven't heard anything.

What to do? First check your booking online here. Look carefully: only one flight (outbound or inbound) may have been cancelled. Then call 00496986799099 (Latam customer service). Be patient as you have to go through quite some options.

I ended up with a very capable agent who, despite the fact that I had booked through an OTA, rebooked my outbound flight at no fee. I'm don't know exactly what your rights are, but if you booked through an OTA, in principle they have to help you and they're usually very hard to do business with.

Lesson learned: booking through an OTA might save you a few euros, but poses a risk that you're not made aware of changes and that you have to rebook at additional cost via the OTA. I consciously took that risk, but will be more careful in the future.

You can read my review of a previous Frankfurt-Madrid flight here.